Whose Team Is It Anyway?

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

September 24, 2013

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The crossword puzzle clue in the Spirit magazine surely didn't intend to declare anything about the Pacers' locker room culture, pecking order or stat leaders.

But there it was, 5 Down: “Roy Hibbert's team.”

It was an interesting choice. The puzzle's author could have gone with Paul George's team, or David West's team, or even Larry Bird's (current) team. But Hibbert it was. Shown the puzzle at the Pacers Foundation annual golf outing at Brickyard Crossing on Monday, Hibbert smiled and took a cell phone photo of it. But just so there's no mistaking the connotation, he doesn't consider the Pacers to be “his team.” They just happen to be the team for which he plays.

“We don't have a Kobe or a LeBron,” Hibbert said. “We all rely on each other. It's a group. On any given night it could be David's night, my night, George's (Hill) night, Lance's (Stephenson) … and hopefully Danny (Granger) comes back healthy. It's just really fun when you see somebody hot from the start and you keep feeding them the ball.”

The Pacers reached the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals last season by living up to the cliché of total team effort. They showed balance in their finest moments, and they went down together in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Miami. Nobody carried them. Nobody held them back. One of the lasting memories of the playoff run was the sight of all five starters showing up for the postgame media session following the series-clinching Game 6 victory over New York in the second round. Each of the starters had led the team's scoring in at least one game in that series, so it seemed an appropriate gesture.

That all-for-one approach will be tested again in the upcoming season after Paul George signs a five-year contract weighing in at about $90 million, as he reportedly will do soon. That will make George the team's highest-paid player, but hardly its only highly-paid player. Hibbert signed a contract that pays him about $14 million annually last summer. Danny Granger has one season remaining on a deal that will pay him another $14 million and change this season. David West signed a three-year deal that pays about $12 million annually this summer. George Hill signed on for $8 million per season last year.

Even on payday, nobody stands far apart from the others. But if forced to vote, Hibbert would nominate West as the “owner” of the players' portion of the team.

“He's the backbone of the team,” Hibbert said. “David brings it day-in and day-out. He didn't let anybody mess with any of us, and nobody messed with him, either. In terms of toughness, it's him.”

Expectations will raise around George after his contract becomes official, as they did with Hibbert a year ago. George, however, doesn't believe his contract transfers ownership of anything to him.

“This is the Indiana Pacers' team,” he said. “I would love to come into my own role (as the season progresses) but to start the year off it's the Indiana Pacers' team. That's how we got far last year. We relied on everyone on our team. That's the same way we're going in this year.”

That isn't to say George wouldn't like to become the Pacers' acknowledged leader someday. After all, he's 23 years old, coming off his first All-Star selection and seemingly headed for many more appearances. Fulfilling the potential that his contract indicates he possesses would leave him no choice but to assume the primary leadership role.

“I would love to,” he said. “But there's work I have to do on the court to be able to call it my team.”

That statement qualifies as evidence that George can handle the role of locker room ownership if it ever comes to that. A team does not become any one player's team by assignment, it has to be earned. And one of the primary challenges of signing a mega contract is handling the pressure that comes with the paycheck.

Hibbert appeared to struggle with it early last season, but not as much as it seemed at the time. His slow start turned out to be mostly the result of an poorly aligned wrist on his shooting hand. Physical therapist Dan Dyrek discovered the problem before the game against Philadelphia on Dec. 14, and treated it. Hibbert hit 9-of-16 shots that night, scoring 19 points. Two nights earlier, he had hit 1-of-7 shots and scored four points against Cleveland. He considers that the turning point of his season, although there still would be some tough nights ahead, such as that scoreless game in Atlanta on Dec. 29. From the All-Star break forward, he was consistently effective.

“I don't think the contract had anything to do with (the slow start),” Hibbert said. “My wrist was messed up. I was getting all the shots I wanted, they just wouldn't fall. Everybody wants to put a label on why I wasn't playing well. It had nothing to do with the contract … I wasn't even thinking about it.”

Except, of course, when people kept asking him about it.

Now it will likely be George's turn to ignore a new contract. It won't go into effect until after the upcoming season, but it will be there, looming overhead and arousing expectations. Whatever challenges he faces, however, he won't have to go it alone.

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